An explosive new vocabulary builder

For every tactic tried by energetic educators, some subjects just aren’t fun to learn. Vocabulary words seem to be one of them.

Yet it’s hard to imagine that something called Wordgasm could be tedious. Or that this “steamy program” – that’s how the vocabulary-building CD set is billed on its box – would fail to keep you alert. Apparently, hearing poems about hunks you lusted after in high school can help you grasp the meaning of words like lachrymose and invidiousness.

“My goal was to make the most effective vocabulary program possible,” says Renee Mazer, the Berwyn-based creator of Wordgasm. Its second collection is due out at the end of this month.

And injecting suggestive comedy into the lesson was the best way.

“If you want to get someone’s attention, talk about sex,” Mazer says.

Mazer, 45, a former Environmental Protection Agency lawyer and single mother of two, is a Mensa member, tutor, and graduate of the Wharton School and Penn Law. She founded and owns High Score, a precollegiate test prep company based in Berwyn.

It’s through prep testing that Mazer saw the necessity for a mnemonic device that captured the attention of her chatty young charges. For them she developed a seven-CD/booklet set in 2003 called “Not Too Scary Vocabulary,” rife with teen-speaking pop-culture references as well as mnemonics, alliteration, and rhyme.

She’s not sure, but she thinks she sold more than 30,000 copies of it. “I’m a total ditz when it comes to keeping records.”

So math isn’t her strong suit. Conceiving a vocabulary package that grips teens preparing for SATs, adults trying for new jobs, or anyone looking to enhance verbal skills, is.

“I was at a friend’s house skimming her iPod when I came across ‘Renee Mazer,’ ” says Nick Mishkin, 18, a senior at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Fla. “Confused I never heard of her, my friend replied, ‘Renee is a vocabulary lady.’ I had to hear her for myself, so I put on headphones and listened to her first word, abash. After listening, I made fun of my friend for having vocabulary on her iPod.”

Yet when Mishkin got home, he couldn’t erase Mazer’s voice from his head. “Without effort, I’d learned the meaning of abash.” (For the record: to make ashamed or uneasy; disconcert.)

The next day he bought Not Too Scary Vocabulary, contacted Mazer through an e-mail address listed on the CD, and became a tester for her then-next project, Wordgasm. Recently, Mishkin was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania – early.

The very idea of a “wordgasm” sounds like a rush of foul chatter normally heard on HBO or at a particularly lousy Flyers game. Yet the vocabulary builder is all about learning new words with just a slight kinkiness.

Here’s an example of how she teaches a word.

The word semblance means appearance or resemblance. You can remember it by seeing semblance in the word you already know (resemblance), and linking the two in your mind.

That’s Psychology 101 stuff. When you connect new information to knowledge already in your long-term memory, the new information attaches to the old and goes directly into your memory bank. Once she’s taught a word with a mnemonic, Mazer employs some dirty talk to reinforce meaning and to enable listeners to hear the word in context. For semblance, you’ll hear a guy singing this:

I’ve got a blow-up doll, her name is Candy/She’s always there for me when I get randy/You could say it’s just a semblance of sex, but she’s still more lively than my ex.

Serious, no. Effective, apparently. And there’s plenty more – 120 examples on each two-CD set – where that came from.

“Renee sings about using plastics as a semblance of sex – that’s always stuck in my head now,” says Gayle Pitone, 16, a Mount Laurel high school junior whose mother, Cindy Kerr Pitone, knows Mazer and got Wordgasm for her in preparation of the SATs.

Certainly there’s the question whether peppering lessons with licentiousness is appropriate when teaching teenagers.

“My parents thought Wordgasm was funny and figured as long as I’m learning, they didn’t care what she says,” says Mishkin, whose favorite wordgasm is ephemera, which Mazer equates to a short-lived performance in bed.

Kerr Pitone said it raised her eyebrow, but she’s all for it. “I wish I knew about this program when my son was studying for his SAT,” says Kerr Pitone, who also uses it to boost her language skills. “My daughter and I listen to them in the car and laugh. Renee never ceases to amaze me how far she will push the envelope.”

Not everyone likes their envelope pushed.

Ronald A. Berk, a former assistant dean of teaching at Johns Hopkins University, published studies showing that sharing a laugh helps students learn more. But when he visited Mazer’s Web site, he was annoyed. “Sexually oriented material for teaching purposes is totally inappropriate,” he says. “I would never condone the use of such material with adults or anyone else. It’s simply not my style or preference.”

Though Mazer believes she overemphasized the risque aspects of Wordgasm on its packaging without stating its benefits, she defends her tactics. “Every wild thing I included was carefully designed to make the words easy to learn and the typically arduous task entertaining.”

One expert says Mazer need not be sorry. “It might be a tough sell, but any adult who feels fine with their kids reading Sports Illustrated should be comfortable with this,” says John Katzman. “Wordgasm’s hardly pornography.”

Katzman founded the renowned Princeton Review and left only recently to start 2tor Inc., a newly launched high-end online degree program in partnership with the University of Southern California. Katzman is familiar with Mazer’s test prep work and believes what she’s doing with Wordgasm is inventive.

“Mnemonics are a great way to learn vocab and what she does is pungent,” Katzman says, and he means that in a positive way. “There is so much in education that’s bland and utterly unmemorable that what she does is valuable. It would be hard to make education more uninteresting. We’ve sucked out all the joy. Renee’s work puts some of it back.”
By A.D. Amorosi For The Inquirer
Posted on Wed, Mar. 11, 2009